Right-Wing Funded Civitas Institute Is Almost Up and Running at UT-Austin

Photo by John Anderson

Monday was Justin Dyer’s first day as head of the University of Texas’ School of Civic Leadership, a newly created college tied to the right-wing funded Civitas Institute that has drawn skepticism and criticism from some corners of the university.

UT professors lobbed plenty of questions at UT President Jay Hartzell when the Liberty Institute, touted by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and supported by conservative donors, was first revealed to be in the works in 2021. Patrick’s participation – which included a proclamation on Twitter that it was time to ban critical race theory from higher education – was viewed as politicians interfering in academic freedom. Patrick didn’t hesitate to call the UT Faculty Senate, “a bunch of loony Marxist professors” for their resolution that it was professors, and not politicians, who should decide when and where critical race theory should be taught.

That was 2022. Before the dust settled, the Liberty Institute, with its $8.5 million in private money, was a failure-to-launch, per an article in the Texas Tribune. When the idea was resurrected, the Liberty Institute name was gone, a bill at the Texas Legislature was filed and nixed, and the think tank/school of civic leadership ended up going through traditional funding channels.

Dyer, who was brought on board last year after the initial soap opera that was the Liberty Institute ended, told the Chronicle he has no idea where the $8.5 million went, but it’s not baked into the current budget of the Civitas Institute. He said fundraising of any kind will be transparent and that Civitas won’t participate in any “pay for play” schemes. He also shared governance documents for the institute.

Given Patrick’s early rhetoric, it’s difficult to separate the newly created School of Civic Leadership, created by the UT Board of Regents last May, from the highly politicized passage of last session’s Senate Bill 17, a muddy and convoluted bill that ended diversity and inclusion offices on university campuses around the state. During a session at last week’s Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Policy Summit – aptly titled Winning the War on Woke – Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, had no problem poking the bear that is the UT Faculty Council.

“My tagline for this would be the Faculty Senate is not the Texas Senate. It’s very important for everybody to understand this,” Bettencourt told an appreciative crowd at the annual meeting. “The Senate and the House make the laws that are signed into law by the governor, and that’s how things really work in Texas.”

Translation: Lawmakers are fed up with the distractions of testy topics like diversity and inclusion when students ought to be drilling down on values like patriotism and exceptionalism. But is that how the School of Civic Leadership will operate? Right now, the majority of the school’s work will flow through two committees: one on faculty hiring and the other on curriculum development. Dyer told us offers are out to a number of potential faculty hires, but he has no final names to tie to the school’s faculty roster.

The first real evidence of the school’s work will begin in the fall, when the school offers its first classes. The school’s goal is to launch its first minor (in philosophy, politics, and economics) when classes begin this fall. Eventually, the school is expected to offer a degree plan, much like other schools and colleges within the university. During his comments on last week’s panel, Dyer pushed his own concerns about DEI outside the classroom.

“I teach constitutional law, and so when I have students in the classroom, and we read cases that have been decided by the Supreme Court, I have them read majority opinions and dissenting opinions,” Dyer said. “They are forced to wrestle with different ideas on every controversial issue that you can think of in American politics, and my experience is that even in this environment, when you put this to students in that way, they respond really well.”

Yes, the Civitas Institute will drill down on concepts like “individual, political and economic liberty,” he said, but it will be done within the realm of typical academic research and an arms-length apart from conservative money, said Ryan Streeter, who will oversee the research and publications for the Civitas Institute. Political supporters like Bettencourt throw out red meat like “Texas values” and “core beliefs.” Streeter puts on a more academic path, calling it a movement “to reclaim a proper understanding of American civics.”

“Like any other school or research institute, we’re going to welcome support from people that want to support our research, so long as they understand that the academic integrity and independence of our schools is first and foremost,” Streeter said in an interview after the panel. “That’s a declaration. It’s a commitment. It’s a principle. We all adhere to it.”

What research is not going to be is political, Streeter said. Plenty of other people are doing political activism on college campuses, he said. That’s not his goal.

“I think that all politicization of college curriculum research is not in the spirit of the university,” Streeter told us. “So, I will criticize where I see the politicization of research anywhere. And also commit to that not being a part of what we do.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, continues to pursue those institutions that fail to toe the line on the mandates of Senate Bill 17. His latest letter, dated Tuesday, was sent to the University of North Texas board of regents, asking for proof that the system had ended the existence of its DEI office, stopped mandatory diversity training of faculty and implemented a hiring system based on merit with no deference to race, color, ethnicity or national origin.

The school is sponsoring a number of events this spring, including a joint colloquium with Pusey House in Oxford in May. The first classes of the School of Civic Leadership will be offered in fall of 2024.

Editor’ Note Friday, March 27, 3:46pm: This story has been corrected. The Civitas Institute is not partnering with Oxford University, but Pusey House in Oxford. The Chronicle regrets the error.